Tag Archives: Law

A Challenge that Was Inevitable

But I was surprised to see it coming from Thailand.  The motion filed by the ex-TAT Governor, Ms. Juthamas Siriwan, and her daughter, Jittisopa Siriwan (both presumed innoncent), to dismiss a U.S. indictment against them, as reported in this PriceSanond news piece, evidences a reaction to efforts by U.S., and now other countries, to more strictly enforce anti-corruption laws.

As part of an overall effort to enforce anti-corruption laws, U.S. officials are pushing the legal envelope to charge foreign officials who are believed to be recipients of illegal payments in Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) cases.  They are using the tools they have, even if somewhat limited, to curb the demand side of international corruption.

In recent years U.S. officials have aggressively pushed the supply side of international corruption on U.S. parties that pay bribes or don’t do enough – in the eyes of U.S. authorities – to curb the payment of illegal payments under the FCPA.  Fines have sky rocketed and people are – as the former head of FCPA enforcement at the Department of Justice (DOJ) said they should – going to jail.  It’s no longer “fun and games”.

Not surprisingly, the U.S. business community has pressed back, complaining that, among other things, the playing field is uneven because their competitors from other countries don’t face anything remotely similar to the FCPA’s tough enforcement regime.   It’s still early days, but other countries are now starting to enforce their anti-corruption laws.  I don’t see that trend reversing itself.

And what about the recipients of illegal payments?  In some cases, bribes are paid to gain an advantage over competitors, but in other cases they are simply paid because they are believed to be necessary to do any business at all (on the facts alleged, this case would not appear to fall within that category).   Not surprisingly, this generates tremendous resentment.  Businesses subject to strong foreign anti-corruption laws ask: why isn’t more being done to prosecute foreign officials that solicit and accept and, in some cases, demand bribes?

It’s a fair complaint and it resonates well not only with the U.S. business community, but with the international business community generally now that foreign anti-corruption laws are starting to show some teeth.  It doesn’t seem fair to punish the payer (supply side) when a foreign official receiving a bribe (demand side) escapes punishment.

Because of limits within the FCPA, it’s essentially impossible to employ that specific law against foreign officials.  So other measures are employed.  U.S. money laundering laws are pushed to their limits, raising the question: could this be a case of bad facts creating bad law?

Other measures are employed:

  • Immigration holds that prevent suspected corrupt foreign officials from entering the U.S.
  • Detaining and searching foreign business people when they pass through U.S. airports.
  • Extraditions from outside of the U.S.
  • A proposed law that would give U.S. companies handicapped by the corrupt practices of their foreign competitors with a civil remedy against those competitors.
  • Rule of law initiatives aimed at strengthening anti-corruption laws in countries where bribes are often paid.

The vast majority of people in countries where bribes are paid suffer the most from corruption.  They are the ones who are most damaged by corruption, although they sometimes don’t appreciate the role corruption plays in impoverishing their society. But that is changing too.  NGOs and more proactive journalists are helping to make the connection between corruption and the harm it causes.  When government officials spend millions, if not billions, on a product or project that doesn’t seem to do anything or is grossly over-priced, it often garners front page news now and questions about which government officials benefitted from the deal.

The pressure on the supply side will continue.  The U.S. may lose a few procedural skirmishes, but the trend to increase pressure on curbing the demand side of corruption will continue.  We may hear cries about ‘neo-colonialism’, but, in the end, those cries will be recognized for what they really are and fall on deaf ears.  Only a very few in countries with corruption problems benefit from corruption; the vast majority are victims.  They pay taxes that are siphoned off to vested interests or sometimes, when safety standards are compromised in an effort to make a profit, they pay with their lives.

It’s still early days – just like it was early days when the DOJ and U.S. SEC started to more aggressively enforce the FCPA in the U.S. in the mid part of the last decade – but we will see more pressure to curb the demand side in the form of enforcement actions and, perhaps, new laws to address gaps in existing laws.  We’ll also see press-back in response to these efforts to curb the demand side of corruption and plenty of skirmishes along the way.

NBTC Notification Restricting “Foreign Domination” – Some Context

It’s hard to see what sort of involvement by a foreigner in Thailand’s telecommunications sector is not up swept into the notification restricting “foreign domination” over Thailand’s telecommunications businesses recently issued by the acting National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC).  The NBTC’s notification goes far beyond the restrictions found in Thailand’s already expansive Foreign Business Act (FBA).

As reported in this PriceSanond News piece, the acting NBTC recently issued a notification restricting “foreign domination” over telecommunications businesses.  It was published in the Thai Government Gazette on 30 August 2011 and became effective the following day, 31 August.   The notification applies to all current holders of and applications for Type-2 (with network) and Type-3 licenses, meaning that it applies to companies that currently operate a business based on a permission, concession or contract with CAT or TOT. In other words, it applies to current participants in the telecommunications sector. The notification lists the following ten examples of what the NBTC claims is “foreign domination” of a telecommunications business:

1. direct or indirect share holding by foreigners or foreigners’ agents;

2. use of apparent agents (nominees);

3. holding of shares with special voting rights;

4. participating in appointing or having control over the board of directors or senior officers of the licensee;

5. a financial relationship such as having a corporate guarantee or a loan with a lower-than-market interest rate;

6. licensing or franchising;

7. management or procurement contracts;

8. joint investments (by a licensee and foreigners);

9. transactions involving transfer pricing; and

10, any other behavior which provides direct or indirect control to a foreigner over a licensee.

“…any other behavior…”  That catch-all phrase seems about as expansive as you can get.

So Why Issue this Notification Now?

Just a hunch, but the Thailand’s telecommunications sector is lucrative, and the competition has become fierce.  The relationship between Thailand’s second largest telecommunications carrier, DTAC, and its third largest telecommunication, True, has been particularly contentious.  And of course time is running out for this NTBC: new members are supposed to be appointed to the NBTC this Monday.

But first some more background:

In April of this year, DTAC challenged a deal between True and CAT Telecom public limited company (CAT) in Thailand’s Central Administrative Court.  CAT is a state-owned company that runs Thailand’s international telecommunications infrastructure, including its international gateways, satellite, and submarine cable networks connections.  CAT was formed out of a government agency and is often still thought of as a government agency.

At that time, the Bangkok Post reported that Somkiat Tangkitvanich, the vice-chairman of the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI), “said the deal amounted to a ‘pseudo-concession’ and should be investigated for compliance with the law.”

About two months later, in mid-June, “True Move…filed a criminal complaint against its bigger rival DTAC for having a foreign state enterprise as a major shareholder, which it claims is a violation of the Foreign Business Act”, reported the Bangkok Post.  The Bangkok Post went onto report: “True Move has no plan to file a complaint against Advanced Info Service even though the mobile market leader also has a complicated shareholding structure, said Athueck Asvanont, vice-chairman of parent True Corporation.”  Interesting.

And filing this criminal complaint, of course, had nothing to do with the complaint which DTAC earlier filed with the Central Administrative Court over what the TDRI’s Somkiat Tangkitvanich said amounted to a “pseudo-concession“.  The Bangkok Post reported in this same article that True’s Athueck “rebutted the claim that the petition represented retaliation against DTAC for filing a case with the Central Administrative Court seeking to scrap the contentious deal between CAT Telecom and True Corporation.”

Several weeks later, the Ministry of Commerce (MOC”) announced that DTAC appeared to be employing an illegal nominee structure in violation of the FBA. This development was summarized on this blog here.

Row Within MOC on FBA Claim Against DTAC

As blogged here and reported in the Bangkok Post, in early July, shortly after the elections but before a new government was formed and appointed new ministers, there was a row within the MOC itself about how to handle the matter.  The Bangkok Post provided this description of the row:

The head of the Business Development Department is challenging his boss’s order for the department to take legal action against DTAC on its nationality, saying the instruction is a “direct political intervention” and “illegitimate”.

The department, a unit under the Commerce Ministry, insisted on submitting its committee’s original findings to the police and ask them to determine whether the law had been broken, and if so, to take further action.

The move openly challenges Commerce Minister Alongkorn Ponlaboot, who had yesterday demanded that Banyong Limprayoonwong, director-general of the ministry’s Business Development Department, press the charge against DTAC. “He [Mr Alongkorn] has no authority or obligation under the Foreign Business Act (FBA) to force me to accuse a company of being foreign-owned,” Mr Banyong said.

“Mr Alongkorn’s decision cannot be regarded as a government policy. It is a direct political intervention,” Mr Banyong said

Shortly afterwards a new government was formed.  The old ministers were replaced with new ones.  And the FBA case appears to have drop off the radar (for now at least).

What about the NBTC and its Notification?

The NBTC which issued the notification restricting “foreign domination” in telecommunications businesses is also about to be replaced with new members. Its members were also appointed before the July elections.  The NBTC’s notification on “foreign domination” of telecommunications businesses was published just one week before new members are supposed to be appointed to the NBTC.  As expained here:

The Thai Senate is scheduled to select members of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) this Monday, 5 September 2011.  The current acting NBTC recently issued a controversial notification restricting “foreign domination” over telecommunications businesses shortly before the Senate was scheduled to select new members.  The Bangkok Post reports that the selection process has been “punctuated by fierce lobbying”.  If the Senate fails to select members of the NBTC by 11 September, the cabinet then appoints members to the NBTC, reports the Bangkok Post.

“Fierce lobbying” for seats on what would be a rather pedestrian regulatory body elsewhere?  The Senate has the first shot at appointing new members to the NBTC.  But if they are unable to do so by 11 September, the new Thai cabinet is supposed to make the appointments.

What this Means for Thailand: the Larger Picture

Leslie Lopez, a writer for the Straits Times Straits Times in Singapore, recently made the following observations:

Thailand’s manufacturing sector is one of the most robust in the region because of liberal foreign investment rules, and that in turn has made the country a regional hub for industries such as car manufacturing and electronics.

But the services sector is highly regulated in favour of local groups.

Thailand also ranks as one of the last countries in the region to fully deploy advanced wireless technology, largely because of the absence of a regulatory agency with the necessary clout to rein in the powerful state enterprises and push ahead with the licensing of new services.

As a result, the country continues to suffer from a lack of foreign investment in the sector.

***

“The setting up of the NBTC will get the reform process going. That is key,” says investment analyst Thitithep Nophaket, who covers the telco sector for Phatra Securities in Bangkok, referring to the new watchdog body.

Yes; setting up an NBTC that is not beholden to any business interest is important.  Eliminating or at least curbing laws that can be used to take out effective foreign competitors would also help.  Let’s see if it happens.

Will Thailand Ever Ratify ICSID? And Why it Should.

ICSID, the acronym for the International Centre of the Settlement of Investment Disputes, is “an autonomous international institution established under the Convention on the Settlement of Investment Disputes between States and Nationals of Other States (the Convention) with over one hundred and forty member States.”  It provides a forum and has rules for arbitrating disputes between foreign investors and countries.  It covers disputes similar to the one we saw between Walter Bau and Thailand recently.

Indeed, the bi-lateral investment treaty (BIT) between Germany and Thailand that Walter Bau employed to commence arbitration proceedings against Thailand provides that if “both” countries become parties to the Convention, investment disputes will be arbitrated under ICSID rules rather than the rules set out in Article 10 (3) of that treaty. This provision might as well have said: “if Thailand (finally) becomes a party to the Convention”, since Germany is already a party to the Convention.

At least 147 countries have ratified ICSID.   China is one of them.  Virtually every developed country (except Canada?) and the vast majority of less developed countries have ratified the Convention.  A few countries, such as Namibia and the Russian Federation, have not.  Thailand signed the Convention on 6 December 1985, but has not yet ratified the Convention?   Why?

To be fair, some commentators claim that ICSID and BITs containing investment protection provisions unfairly override the ability of countries, particularly less developed countries, to exercise their regulatory powers.  To be honest, I have never seen ICSID or a BIT prevent a country from legitimately exercising its regulatory powers.

The irony here is that Thailand is already a party to at least 30 treaties that contain some form of arbitral requirement for investment disputes.  They don’t seem to have deterred Thailand from exercising its regulatory powers.  They have created a hodge-podge of inconsistent obligations on the treatment of foreign investors.

Further, even though the Thai government has been reluctant to agree to arbitration of investor disputes, in some matters it is already obliged to arbitrate investment disputes. (The lesson for investors here is simple: look beyond your contract to possible treaty obligations.)  And because arbitration under a BIT is generally subject to ad hoc rules, that arbitration “is subject to the rules of the arbitration law of the country where the tribunal has its seat.”   The Walter Bau matter arose out of Swiss arbitral proceedings.

As Christoph Schreuer observed in The Dynamic Evolution of the ICSID System:

Compared to ad hoc arbitration, the ICSID Convention offers considerable advantages: it offers a system for dispute resolution that contains not only standard clauses for arbitration and rules of procedure but also institutional support for the conduct of proceedings.

Because of these advantages and, quite frankly, the prestige and integrity of ICSID, arbitral proceedings under ICSID also provides a level of perceived legitimacy that ad hoc arbitration lacks.  When a recognized and well-respected international body such as ICSID administers arbitral proceedings, it’s easier for a government to explain why the award must be paid and fend off misinformed domestic complaints about honoring an unfavorable award.

Those advantages did not exist in the Walter Bau matter.  And, because of what occurred in the Walter Bau matter, I suspect it is even less likely now Thailand will ratify the Convention and join ICSID.  There is further irony here since, if Thailand had adopted ICSID, I suspect that it would have been much easier to pay the award in the first place and thereby avoided the domestic controversy we saw when Walter Bau tried to enforce the award.

The Peculiar Local View of Arbitration

When reporting on disputes subject to arbitration, the Thai press typically says or suggests that the arbitration proceedings are, as a matter of common practice, subject to some form of automatic and independent de novo review by a court.  This is particularly true when the local press is reporting about disputes with the Thai government, but you also see this in reporting about commercial disputes between private parties.

The recent case involving the Boeing 737 in Munich was just an example of this practice in the context of a dispute with the Thai government, made more unusual by the extraordinary claim that a Swiss arbitral award could be directly challenged in a U.S. Court.  More recently, in a description of the dispute between DTAC and CAT, the Bangkok Post reported: “If the arbitrator rules in favour of CAT, DTAC can appeal to the Central Administrative Court.”

Is this how arbitration really works?  Not at all, but reading the Thai press you could be excused for thinking otherwise.  This is not the international practice and it is not even supposed to be the practice in Thailand.

The Thai government does seem to be reluctant to agree to arbitration in the first instance, but once it agrees, it should not object to arbitration and should comply with the arbitral award, absent extraordinary circumstances.  This is basic.

Thailand is one of the original signatories to the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards, also known as the New York Convention, and the New York Convention provides very limited grounds for refusing to enforce an international arbitral award.  Thailand is not alone in agreeing to the New York Convention.

At least 144 other countries are signatories to the New York Convention, including every major trading partner of Thailand.  The domestic legislation that signatories to the New York Convention enact and the policies they following in recognizing and enforcing international arbitral award may vary somewhat, but this idea that arbitral awards are somehow subject to automatic judicial review is very peculiar.

Parties do go to the court, but in the U.S. a motion to vacate an arbitral award may be heard only in the courts of the country where the arbitration occurred or in the courts of any country whose procedural law was specifically invoked in the contract calling for arbitration of contractual disputes.

When parties do go to court following issuance of an arbitral award, this typically only occurs to have the arbitral award recognized and enforced.  And for obvious practical reasons (cost and inconvenience), this generally only occurs when a party fails to comply with an arbitral award.  Even in China:

…if an Intermediate People’s Court intends to turn down an application for enforcing an award of a PRC foreign related arbitration commission or a foreign arbitration award, it must refer the application to the Higher Court for review before making the decision. If the Higher Court is of the same view as the Intermediate People’s Court, it must further refer the application to the Supreme Court at Beijing and no decision should be made until the view of the Supreme Court is sought. This practice assists to alleviate the concern of some foreign parties that awards may not be enforced in China due to local protectionism, especially if the losing party is a state-owned enterprise.

But what about this notion in Thailand that arbitral awards are subject to automatic review by a court?  There were proposals to change Thai law to prohibit arbitration between private parties and governmental agencies, but those proposals were never enacted.  And there is no general provision of law providing for automatic de novo review of arbitral awards by courts, administrative or otherwise.

Could these be a feature of a contract between a private party and the Thai government?  If so, I have never seen such a provision providing for judicial review following arbitration.

In negotiating contracts with government agencies, I have encountered strong resistance to agreeing to any form of arbitration at all.  And in negotiating contracts on behalf of foreign parties with local commercial parties in Thailand, I have sometimes encountered reluctance to  agree to arbitration outside of Thailand. But I have never seen anyone even suggest a clause providing for automatic judicial review of the arbitration.

In the U.S., the courts do not permit a direct appeal of an arbitration award to an appellate court even when the parties have agreed to such a procedure. Johnson v Well Fargo Mortgages, Inc. An agreement for judicial review on the merits of an arbitral award runs contrary to the very purpose of arbitration. It is well established that:

The number-one benefit of arbitration is that it serves as a forum to resolve disputes outside of the judicial system. Arbitration can be fast, quick and easy, whereas lawsuits can drag on for years and years.

So why does this idea that arbitral awards should and commonly are subject to appeal persist in Thailand?

Is Thailand Really Appealing Walter Bau’s Arbitration Award in a US Court?

No.  But reading some of the reports in the Thai press you might get that impression.  “once the legal dispute was decided by the [US] court, the Thai government would live up to its responsibility”  “it was inappropriate for the German government to make such a demand when the legal dispute had not yet been settled [on appeal in the US].  “This is being appealed.”  So this appeal challenges the merits of the arbitration award, right?

That’s is not what Thailand’s own appellate brief says.  In fact, it says the exact opposite.  On page six: “The New York Convention affords the district court no power to vacate the Final Award [the arbitration award that is supposedly on appeal], and Thailand did not ask the district court to do so.”

While quotes from Thai politicians in the Thai press seem to suggest otherwise (maybe something got lost in the translation?), Thailand’s own appellate brief get’s it right: Thailand cannot challenge the arbitration award and it is not trying to do so.  U.S. law does not allow it do so and the New York Convention – a treaty that governs the recognition and enforcement of international arbitration awards – also does not permit a U.S. court to overturn the arbitral award in favor of Walter Bau and against the Thai government.  This is about as basic as it gets.

So what is the appeal about?

Basically Thailand argues that the US district court applied the wrong standard of review in determining whether Walter Bau and Thailand agreed to arbitrate the dispute when it confirmed the arbitration award.  It’s about the “arbitrability” of the dispute.  Thailand argues that the US district court was obliged – under U.S. law – to take a “fresh look” at whether there was an agreement to arbitrate. The US district disagreed, saying: “Thailand has already conceded, as it must, that it entered into two treaties that expressly provide for arbitration…” and this is a dispute about the scope of this undisputed arbitration obligation, something which the arbitral panel itself has the authority to decide.

The US District adds: “While the Court finds it unnecessary to review the Arbitrators’ Award de novo [legal language for a “fresh look”], it is important to note that…there is serious doubt as whether, even on a de novo review, Thailand would be able to turn over the Arbitrators’ well reasoned award.”

I’d agree that this is worth noting.  Thailand’s appellate brief dismisses this comment as dicta (probably right), but it’s nonetheless very important dicta.

What does Thailand want the US Appellate Court to do?

Thailand wants the appellate court to remand – meaning, return – the matter to the US District Court with instructions that the US District Court conduct a fresh review of the arbitrability of the dispute.  Thailand also wants the order confirming the arbitration award in the US District Court to be vacated.  To be fair, Thailand is also essentially arguing that if the correct standard of review is applied, the US District Court should decide that this dispute was not properly subject to arbitration under US law.

When Does a US Court Decide the Underlying Dispute Between Walter Bau and Thailand?

Never.  The US doesn’t have jurisdiction over the underlying dispute and it doesn’t have authority to set aside the international arbitration award issued in Geneva, Switzerland.

So how is this Resolved?

By all accounts the arbitration award is final.  Other than the somewhat confusing references to the pending appellate court proceedings in US, no one has suggested otherwise.  This means that Walter Bau continues to pursue Thai assets until Thailand complies with the award and pays, Walter Bau seizes enough Thai assets to satisfy the award, Walter Bau gives up (that doesn’t seem likely) or some sort of settlement is reached between Walter Bau and Thailand.

Early Comments on the FBA Investigation into DTAC

The Bangkok Post reported that the Ministry of  (“MOC”) issued a 35 page report addressing claims that DTAC is an “alien” under the Foreign Business Act (FBA): “Commerce Ministry investigators have made a preliminary finding that some Thai nominees hold shares on behalf of foreigners in the mobile firm DTAC”. (http://www.bangkokpost.com/business/telecom/245480/dtac-probe-finds-nominees)

That report was to be forwarded to the Royal Police, but more about that below. Continuing with the Bangkok Post report: “Mr. Yanyong [of the MOC] said the preliminary investigation had found some Thai shareholders were nominees for foreign groups led by Telenor, a Norwegian state enterprise.”  In other words, this case turns on the so-called “nominee shareholder” prohibition contained in FBA Section 36, as we originally suspected.

The report is not public and it’s early days, but we can make a few observations and comments about this matter.   For example, what the MOC’s “findings” do and do not mean.  And what they suggest about the MOC’s views on what constitutes nominee shareholding under FBA Section 36.

First and foremost, the MOC’s findings, preliminary or otherwise, are not law.  We are a long way off from anything that can remotely be considered law.  Even if this matter gets to the Royal Police, they actually investigate the matter and they decide some of the Thai shareholders are nominees, that finding by the police and anything the police decided is also not law.  The matter must still go to the prosecutors who must then decide if they want to prosecute.  And if they do prosecute and a Thai Court reaches a substantive decision, there are the inevitable appeals.

A comment, reported in the 8 July 2010 edition of the Bangkok Post (http://www.bangkokpost.com/business/telecom/246011/political-appointee-asserts-role), appears to confuse this point:

Sanya Sathirabutr, a political adviser to Alongkorn Ponlaboot, a Democrat MP and acting deputy commerce minister, said yesterday his investigative team had the authority to decide the nationality of the company and hoped to make a decision by Monday.

Not quite.   If it gets that far, that decision will need to be made by a Court.

But even if the MOC’s findings are not law, they are important.  The press reports give us a glimpse into the MOC’s thinking on this matter.  “‘We have no authority to ask for the financial documents. We need to pass on the duty to the Royal Police instead,’ he [an MOC official] said.”  He appears to be referring to alleged loan arrangements with some of the Thai shareholders.

In practice, when making inquiries about possible nominee status, the MOC looks for evidence of the financial ability of Thai shareholders to fund an acquisition of shares with their own money.  A simple review of bank statements is generally conducted at the company registration stage.  The alleged focus on loan agreements in the DTAC case goes beyond this, but it is consistent with our general theory about what, in the MOC’s eyes, distinguishes genuine investors from nominee investors: evidence that the Thai investor had the ability to and did in fact fund an investment with his or her own funds.

From an administrative perspective, you can see why this approach is attractive.  The so-called “nominee” provision found in Section 36 turns on intent: why did this Thai investor buy these shares?  Did he do so as a genuine investor or as a nominee of foreigners?   MOC officials cannot read minds, but they can read financial statements.  Whether that, by itself, is sufficient and how those records should be read is another matter – a matter that also has not yet been decided.

And the there must also be a prosecution.  FBA Section 36 is a penal provision providing for, among other things, imprisonment of up to three years.  From a prosecutor’s perspective, absent an unequivocal admission from the Thai investor (say, a written deed of nominee shareholding signed by the Thai shareholder), how do I, the prosecutor, prove this investor intended to help foreigners circumvent the FBA?  If the Thai shareholder says he is a genuine investor, how do I prove otherwise?

This case, if it proceeds, will need to address these and many other difficult questions.  It will be interesting.

2007: Proposed Amendments to the FBA – What Happened?

Following the 19 September 2006 coup that ousted the government of Thaksin Shinawatra (Thailand’s first non-constitutional change in over 15 years), the military did all of the things that you would expect of coup makers: it canceled upcoming elections, abrogated the Constitution, dissolved Parliament, banned protests and all political activities, suppressed and censored the media, declared martial law, and arrested Cabinet members.  The military also appointed members to a body called the ‘National Legislative Assembly’ (NLA), and the NLA began to consider and enact new ‘legislation’.

For the foreign business community in Thailand, proposed amendments to the Foreign Business Act (FBA) were the most controversial piece of new legislation. These amendments were intended to re-define what constituted an “alien business” under the FBA.  Foreign control would matter even if the company was majority owned by Thais.  From the post on the history on the FBA, you will recall that up until this time, Thai law expressly provided that a Thai majority owned company was not considered an “alien company” – even if it was foreign controlled – unless the Thai shareholders were  “nominees” of foreigners.

To attract investors, previous Thai governments had publicly emphasized this point when trying to explain the FBA to prospective foreign investors.  And in reliance on this very narrow definition of an “alien” in the FBA, 35 years of practice and repeated reassurances by prior Thai governments, foreigners established and controlled tens of thousands of companies, and done so for decades.  But it appeared that all of this was about to change.

The NLA put forward increasingly restrictive proposals.  Foreigners would essentially be forced to divest themselves of businesses they might have established decades ago in Thailand.  The money, time and effort that tens of thousands of foreigners had put into establishing businesses in Thailand – some of them household named businesses that employed thousands – would be subject to forced fire sales to local interests.

This was headline news in the early part of 2007 with front-page articles about pleas by foreign embassies that the NLA please refrain from enacting such legislation.  The EU said such measures would violate Thailand’s obligations under the WTO.

In the heated arguments over these controversial amendments, the then government put forward some rather interesting arguments to justify their proposed amendments to the FBA, such as

  • The new laws would only affect businesses that were already using illegal nominee structures; these businesses were already violating the law, and they therefore had no right to complain.  The response to this was obvious: if these businesses are already using illegal nominee structures, why change the law?
  • Senior officials in the Ministry of Commerce claimed that every “civilized country in the world” had laws restricting foreign ownership similar in breadth to that of Thailand’s FBA, and such laws determined a company’s “nationality” based on voting control.  While there may be some truth to the latter, the former was demonstrably untrue, unless the U.S., Australia and every member of the EU don’t count as civilized countries.  Thailand’s FBA was and is extraordinary in its breadth.

What happened? The foreign business community’s relationship with and confidence in the government was strained.  There was genuine concern – indeed, an expectation – that such changes would be enacted by the NLA before elections were held on 23 December 2007 to replace the appointed NLA with an elected parliament.  But the elections came and went without any change to the FBA.

The foreign business community sighed in relief. But even in the several weeks after those elections while the NLA remained in power before an elected parliament was seated, there was a strong press to make the FBA much more restrictive.

But it never happened.

Although no legislation was enacted, Thailand’s reputation with investors suffered tremendously.  And the foreign business community felt as though they had only gotten through this by the skin of their teeth.

In the next post on the FBA, I will take a look at the current state of the FBA.  Between now and then, perhaps something else.

Let’s Start with the Foreign Business Act

The Foreign Business Act, B.E. 2542 (FBA), is often the first obstacle a prospective foreign investor in Thailand encounters.  And this makes it an excellent place to begin our discussion of Thai law and policy since the FBA illustrates and embodies so many of the difficulties that foreign investors face in Thailand.

The FBA was enacted in 1999 and prohibits “aliens” – a carefully defined term (more about that and the controversy this has created in subsequent posts) – from owning a wide range of businesses absent certain exceptions or issuance of an “alien business license”, which is difficult to obtain in practice.

The FBA does not cover every business.  I mention this because some seem to believe it covers every business owned by a foreigner, and I want to eliminate that misconception from the outset. The FBA is very broad, applying to about 50 types of businesses (depending upon how a “type” of business is defined) divided into three categories (often called “annexes”), but it’s not so broad as to cover all business activities.  Generally speaking, for example, manufacturing is not restricted under the FBA.  But it’s easy to see how the breadth of the FBA has created the misconception that it applies to any business in Thailand owned by a foreigner.

Complicating matters further, the FBA is also not the only law that restricts foreign ownership and participation in Thai companies.  Even if the FBA does not apply, other Thai laws restricting foreign ownership and participation may apply.  We will look at a few examples of this in future posts, but for now let’s start by taking a broad brush look at the three categories (or annexes) of businesses restricted under the FBA and the rationales for these restrictions.

Annex 1

Annex 1 prohibits alien ownership of nine categories of businesses for “special reasons”, and includes such businesses as newspaper publication, ownership of television stations, forestry, rice farming and trading in land.  The FBA does not permit licenses to be issued to foreigners for ownership of businesses listed in annex 1 under any circumstances.

Annex 2

Annex 2 is divided into three chapters.  In theory, an alien can obtain a license to own a business operating in Annex 2 with approval of the Thai Cabinet.  But in practice getting such approval can be very difficult because of the political nature of the approval required.

Chapter 1 is described as “businesses involving national safety or security” and includes the manufacture, sale and maintenance of firearms, armaments and military vehicles.  Domestic land, water and air transportations “including domestic aviation business” also falls within chapter 1 of Annex 2.  Thailand is not unique in restricting foreign participation in these kinds of businesses.

Chapter 2 is described as ‘businesses affecting arts, culture, traditional customs and folk handicrafts” and includes, among other activities, the creation of Thai wood carvings, manufacture of Thai musical instruments.  I have yet to encounter a foreigner who wanted to set up a business in these areas.

Chapter 3 is described as “businesses affecting natural resources or the environment” and includes, among other activities mining and wood processing to make furniture and utensils. Extractive industries are often the subject of controversy and special protection, and Thailand is no exception.  Because extractive industries tend to attract more than their fair share of transparency problems, investment by foreign companies in these sorts of businesses is problematic even without the FBA.

Annex 3

Annex 3 is described as “businesses in which Thai nationals are not yet ready to compete with aliens.”  Annex 3 is probably the most controversial annex and lists 21 categories of restricted business activities, including, among others, accounting service business,  engineering service business, and “other service business, unless specifically exempted by Ministry of Commerce regulations”.  The Ministry of Commerce (“MOC”) has not specifically exempted any service businesses and the MOC interprets the term “services” very broadly.

For example, the MOC takes the position that a company is engaged in a service business if it leases property.  This means, for instance, that if a manufacturing company (which is not otherwise restricted under the FBA) wants to sub-let part of its facilities to reduce its costs (not uncommon in these financially difficult times), that manufacturing company is engaged in a service activity that requires an alien business license.  Similarly, the MOC takes the position that an alien company needs an alien business license to provide a guarantee.  This means that a foreign owned Thai private limited company that is engaged in manufacturing (and not otherwise restricted under the FBA) cannot grant a guaranty in favor of the foreign parent company without first obtaining an alien business license.  This can create some serious headaches when financing or restructuring the financing of a multinational company:  “Sorry Mr. Lender, the subsidiary that owns our largest factory in Southeast Asia can’t provide a guaranty because…”

What is an ‘Alien Business’?  And Why Definitions Matter

Section 4 of the FBA strictly defines an alien juristic person in terms of ownership of share capital.  Significantly, it does not refer in any sense to voting control of stock or management of a company.  An alien is defined as follows:

“Alien” means:

(1)   a non-Thai natural person;

(2)   a juristic person not incorporated in the country;

(3)   a juristic person incorporated in the country and being of the nature as follows:

(a)   a juristic person of which one-half or more of the capital is held by persons under (1) or (2), or one-half or more of the total capital is invested by persons under (1) or (2); or

(b)   a limited partnership or a registered ordinary partnership of which the managing partner or the manager is a person under (1).

(4)  a juristic person incorporated in the country, of which one-half or more of the capital is held by persons under (1), (2) or (3), or a juristic person of which one-half or more of the capital is invested by persons under (1), (2) or (3).

For the purpose of this definition, a limited company’s shares of which the certificates are issued to bearer shall be considered belonging to aliens unless otherwise provided by ministerial regulations.

This definition is similar to the definition used in the FBA’s predecessor, “NEC 281” (we’ll discuss that when we discuss the history of this law, since you can’t understand the FBA without understanding its history).  This precise definition coupled with the broad scope of both the FBA and its predecessor, NEC 281, and the fact that Thai private limited companies can have shares with different voting rights led to the formation of what are sometimes called “preference share structures” – companies where Thai nationals own a majority of share capital, but foreigners have voting control.   Although officials in prior government publicly stated that such structures were legal provided they did not involve nominee shareholding (fodder for a future post), they have become more controversial and practices surrounding the use of such structures have been more problematic over the last several years.  In the next several posts we’ll walk through the history of the FBA, discuss these issues and explain how they have created a problematic regulatory terrain for foreign investors.

What is this blog about

First day posting. Advice and suggestions are encouraged. I plan to start with the Foreign Business Act (FBA).  Plenty of good and bad material out there on this law and most everyone doing business in Thailand has heard of it, but there is plenty of confusion.  And certainly room for debate.  I intend to start with a brief summary of what the FBA actully says and covers, touch very briefly on what it means, in practical terms, for foreigners wanting to do business in Thailand and then provide a bit of history and background.  The FBA and the controversy surrounding this law cannot be understood without knowing something of its history.

Technical advice is always welcome.  This is all new to me.

Nothing expressed in the blog constitutes legal advice.